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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Silence - A Christian History" (Diarmaid Macculloch)

TITLE: Silence: A Christian History
AUTHOR: Diarmaid McCulloch
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013, (272 pages).

Noise is only one side of the coin. Silence is the significant other. This conviction underlines the premise of this book, written by Oxford professor and historian Diarmaid MacCulloch. In a world of noise and fanfare, dominated by a non-stop 24x7 production and expectation of something audible, something visible, and something significant only with at least a decibel, society may have unwittingly missed out on the significance of quietness, of stillness, and of silence. He begins with an observation about the dog whose howl and silence can both communicate something important. Using that as a bridge to his own personal life, MacCulloch then shares his own struggles about how orthodoxy tends to suppress him into silencing his own sexual orientation in the midst of opposition and controversy. In other words, he is asserting that even in his silence, he is communicating a powerful message from quiet evasion to silent protest.  Rather than the absence of sound, it is the refusal to utter words that constitute the strength of the protest. It is a reaction. It is a response. It is a rebellion. It is a refusal to yield to the conventions especially when sounds try to invade and threaten one toward becoming something or someone he/she is not.

MacCulloch delves straight into the history books to find similarities of how other people in the past have demonstrated their reactions through the use of silence as a tool to assert something. He notices how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the TANAKH, have degrees of reserve and sustained silence with the themes of darkness and death. As much as one can read the Psalms and other literature that paint a gloomy picture through silence, one also notices how relatively little the Scriptures link silence to "peace" and "rest." Yet, the few references to silence, like the silent prayers of Hannah, the moments before God appeared to Elijah, and the state of exile, go to show that God can reveal himself through words, through works, and even through silence. MacCulloch traces the gradual acceptance of the New Testament texts to ultimately forms the canon we have of today. He hones in on the several instances of silence in the NT texts, arguing that Jesus embraces silence in his devotion to God, how the gospel writers like Mark deploy "silence and secrecy" over significant events like the Resurrection, and how the early church crowds herself out with noise and gradually loses the many pointers toward the need for silence.

For the first 500 years after Christ's resurrection, it was a time where believers were literally silenced through death and martyrdom. Theologically, heresies like Gnosticism tried to silence the truth with weird philosophies. The Roman Catholic Church's take on the use of silence had this background from the Hellenistic influence, increasing the tension between Jewish and Hellenistic ways. By the fourth and fifth centuries, the appreciation of silence took to the deserts and the monasteries. It was here that the practice of silence became more systematized and to some extent sentimentalized. The desert fathers, the monks and the nuns, and many contemplatives used silence as a way for self-discovery and for exploring the heights and depths of faith. Between 401 and 1000 CE, silence and purgation became more established and even adopted as a way of penance, especially through mystical theology. Others seek hidden meanings through interpretation, allegory, and strict rules. A key difference between the West and the East forms of spirituality started to form; with the formerly more ritualized and orderly while the latter more spontaneous and indirect.

MacCulloch follows up with the use of silence through the three reformations. The first reformation began with the Iconoclastic controversy (8th-9th Century) that split the East from the West.  At that time, the removal of icons was not primarily a religious one but a military one, as the leaders then were superstitious about how Muslims were winning over many battles at that time. They thought that the Muslim's utter dislike of icons and images was their key to winning! At the same time, there were cults that had marred the general perceptions of how icons could be properly used. The second reformation occurred in the 11th to 12th century due to papal directives. The third reformation is the 16th century Protestant movement inspired by Martin Luther.  Through the use of icons, MacCulloch is pointing to how they aid the focus on God, that instead of letting mouths do the talking, images and icons ought to help one to contemplate and to meditate. However, after the Protestant Reformation, worship became more "sermon-centered," many resort to a phobia of icons, and looked with disdain anything that resembled the Roman Catholic Empire. New forms of music started to spread. Church architecture and buildings became more open, in contrast to previous practices of "locked doors" over the week, and allowed the influx of people, of programs, and of course, noise. There was a gradual turning away from mystical silence, which also unfortunately, removed some of the time tested methods for meditation and contemplation. With the Pentecostal movement, speaking in tongues became one of the most prominent signs of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

If the first three parts of the book are about the history and the formation of attitudes toward silence from a Christianity standpoint, Part Four is about how silence was treated from a Church standpoint. Broadly, MacCulloch brings out three strands. The first strand is more combative, where a lack of tolerance for a differing view has led to persecutions, executions, Inquisitions, and exterminations. Independent thought was not usually tolerated, and people were expected to toe the official line. Silence became a way to ensure one's survival. For example, the Roman Catholic and Protestant were openly at war each each other in 1570. The example of Job Throckmorton, who used "casuistic silence" to attack the Church establishment.MacCulloch seems to have reserved his biggest for the last, that gay male Anglo-Catholicism is a "perfect example of Christian Nicodemism." What he is saying is that gays through history have been "silenced." However, there is a changing stance that is anti-"Nicodemism." Since the early 19th Century, clergy are prepared to sacrifice ecclesiastical loyalty for greater acceptance of their sexual orientations. A majority still is forced to choose the celibacy route. MacCulloch argues forcefully that people through history struggle immensely in hiding their true selves. If Anglo-Catholics were pushed to the margins, gay Anglo-Catholics were pushed even farther out.

Chapter 8 is an interesting chapter that talks about how churches built their identity by forgetting stuff. In 11th century Iceland, Icelandic Christianity were "absorbed" into the Western episcopal system. The original Armenian bishops were all but forgotten. MacCulloch also shines the light on Chalcedon, calling it "one of the great disasters" rather than "triumphs" simply because any victory is less about theological convictions, but more of military conquests. The trouble is not about mere "historical amnesia" but "purposeful forgetfulness." This explains in a big part the reason for the clerical cover up of recent sex scandals. There is also the silent inaction of Christians in the light of the Jewish Holocaust that is shameful; the slave trade; and the consistent use of "selective memory." Such were the negative uses of silence.

The final chapter takes a hard look at the future of Christianity and what it needs to do about the problem of Nicodemism in the Church. Silence always has a context. The monastics use it for deeper contemplation and prayer. The powers to be, especially the Western colonial powers use it on others as a way to assert their control. The benefits of silence that aid worship seem to be forever lost as far as MacCulloch is concerned, as he sees no letting up of the Christian "noisiness" especially associated with Pentecostalism.

So What? 

This is a book that begins by tracing the historical development of the use of silence for divinity as well as for humanity.  With powerful examples and stories of how saints, martyrs, believers, and many others from the Tanakh, the New Testament, the Early Church, the Medieval times, the Desert fathers and the monastics, the Reformations, leading up to the modern era, the author has made the case for the contextual use of silence in each era. From the time of Augustine to the Monastics, the trend has been about trying to grow deep in contemplation and to know God more, to be more self-aware of one's sinful conditions, and pious devotions. The Quakers and other contemplatives in the East continue this tradition. Unfortunately, there is also a negative use of silence that MacCulloch has time and again alluded throughout the first half of the book, only to make it more explicit when he tackles the issue of homosexuality, the Western Church, the Imperialists, and those who choose to silence the weak such as the gays, the Anti-Semitics, and the slaves.

I find the book a very complex piece of work that tries to do three things. First, it traces the chronological development of silence from the earliest times to modern days. This is to give readers an appreciation of the context. Second, it uses the historical moments as a springboard to assert certain motives, political opportunities, spiritual struggles, and explain why the silences were used as they are. Third, MacCulloch puts himself as a victim of "Nicodemism" constantly lamenting and at times, seems to be shaking an angry fist at the powers to be who are trying to silence him, especially his sexual orientation. If MacCulloch had ended with just the first two things (ie, historical survey and the motives of the silent treatments), the book would have been a good objective look at what had happened. It is the third thing that tends to complicate the objectivity of the book. Clearly, MacCulloch has revealed his own personal agenda. In fact, the perceptive reader will even see MacCulloch's third thing as his main motive in writing this book. MacCulloch has an axe to grind, and I find it hard to distinguish MacCulloch's objectivity from his subjectivity in the interpretations and the applications of silence. Before I begin this book, I thought that it was about silence as a historical perspective. After reading the book, I am convinced that it is less of a historical perspective, but more of a "Diarmaid MacCulloch's" perspective of the history of silence.

Having said that, this book is an impressive scholarly look from the view of Diarmaid MacCulloch. Read it. Understand it. Embrace it if you must, but also be ready to ask for a second opinion.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Penguin Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. Good Evening,

    I love your site and came here for your review of "An A-to-Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy and the End Times".

    A few questions..... Just wondering

    1. Do you have a particular eschatological view? Not trying to be dogmatic or argumentative but I grew up pretrib/premil. I have switched in the last 4 months to post-trib/premil.

    2. Do you recommend any eschatological books? Particularly those that teach from a post-trib perspective?

    3. What commentaries do you recommend? (Author or Series)

    4. Do you publish any of your sermons or have you authored any books?


    The name is Allen


    I'm praying 3rd John 2 for you!!!

  2. Hi Allen,

    Thank you for your questions. Wow, that is a lot of material. At this point, I prefer to be "agnostic" about the eschatological views as I find myself unable to be convicted about anyone of them. If I am simply to shoot off the hip, probably, I will align myself a little with the pretrib/premil perspective, but I'm not going to be dogmatic about that.

    What I can recommend are two recent publications that surveys Christian theology from an evangelical angle.

    1) Michael Bird's "Evangelical Theology" (http://booksaint.blogspot.com/2013/08/evangelical-theology-michael-f-bird.html)
    2) Michael Horton's "Pilgrim Theology" (http://booksaint.blogspot.com/2013/03/pilgrim-theology-michael-horton.html)

    There are also books that focus on specific views. I'll just list one each for your reference.

    1) Mathison, Keith. Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999.
    2) Blomberg, Craig L. and Chung, Sung Wook. A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An
    Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
    3) Riddlebarger, Kim. A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times. Grand Rapids:
    Baker Books, 2003.
    4) Zondervan's "Four Views on Revelation" (http://amzn.to/1dV3I4p)

    For commentaries, there are really a lot out there, so if you can give me some more information what are you looking for, I can then help point the way?

    I have yet to publish my sermons or author any books. I am working on one right now.

    Thanks for commenting.

    With grace and peace,